Denver's Dave Shirley has taken his multi-faceted act of magic, juggling, comedy and music from busking on the Sixteenth Street Mall to performing for NBC's America's Got Talent. After years of street performances and depressing corporate gigs, Shirley built his own sketch comedy club, The Rattlebrain Theater, in what has now become Lannie's Clocktower Cabaret. He has since moved on to teaching and building his own stage show, but you can catch him in his second appearance in America's Got Talent this Tuesday and Wednesday. Alhough he couldn't share with us the results of the pre-taped contest, Shirley did give Westword some hard-knock anecdotes about his long road in the entertainment industry -- proof that if you stick it out long enough, the gods of showbusiness will eventually give you a nod.
Dave Shirley: It has been. I started performing 28 years ago, and this whole business is full of disappointments. It feels like you keep performing and performing, waiting to turn that corner. And there are a million people out there doing it, so it's hard to get noticed. So it is a long, hard road.
There are so many people competing in the entertainment industry. Is that what drove you to do these conceptual performances?
Well, that's interesting. Whether it's comedy or theater, everyone tries to figure out what their voice is. For me, I spent a lot of years desperately trying to find something else that would make me as happy as performing, because it is a difficult road, with no promises or job security. So I had tried doing other things that never made me happy.
And then maybe four years ago I thought, "You gotta stop playing around and just put 100 percent into this." So I started developing this show, something I'd wanted to do since I was performing on the Sixteenth Street Mall and Pearl Street in Boulder when I was fifteen. And when you're a street performer you develop a lot of useless talents, ones that are only good for entertainment purposes and have no use in the rest of the world. I always wanted to put one show together that incorporated all of those useless talents, so there was juggling, magic, comedy, film, these things I'd had in my act since I was seventeen.
Were you having any kind of success as a street performer? I understand that, if you do it right, you can make more on Pearl Street than in the clubs.
Well...you can. I think a lot of people have someone in their lives that helps guide them with what they want to do with their life. Even in high school, I never had a counselor sit down with me and ask, "What do you want to do with your life?" I was always wandering around, so I ended up in the Navy, because my parents didn't have any money to send me to college. I was stationed in San Diego and ended up street performing out there.
When I got out of the Navy a friend of mine got me an audition with an improv group called Comedy Sports. I got in, and it was like, "I guess this is what I'm doing now." But it wasn't leading to anything. It was fun, and I was performing, but it doesn't lead to a career.
What was it that lead you to a more established career as a performer?
Well, I was doing humor keynotes for corporate gigs, which seemed like performing to me. And there was money there. But in 2008 when the economy was getting really bad. My phone stopped ringing, because you don't want to bring in the funny guy when businesses are struggling.
So I ended up taking a job at Pickens Technical College in Aurora teaching film. I hadn't gone to film school, but after years of performing in theater and in film, I could teach the class. And I used to own what is now Lannie's Clocktower Cabaret. I built that theater in 2001, and it was called The Rattlebrain Theater. It was a sketch and improv, kind of Second City, Groundlings venue. We incorporated a lot of video, and I'd been an actor in a lot of commercials, so I was kind of a self-taught film person.
If you have enough life experience over a period of time, they give what's called a Career Technical Teaching Endorsement. I wanted nothing more than to love that job. I could collect my secure paycheck and my full benefits. And while I liked it, I didn't love it. About four years ago, I decided I needed to create a product and go 100 percent toward performing. So I spent three or four years really developing a show, performing it at the Avenue Theater or Lannie's. The idea was that I could take it around to colleges and theaters. I couldn't do comedy clubs because there is so much to setup; I needed a gig where I could do it for a few weeks at a time.
Continue reading for more from Dave Shirley. Has there ever been the temptation to do straight standup comedy, since you don't need to bring anything to the gig other than yourself?
Yeah, there is that temptation. And I've done the Improv and Comedy Works and a few open mikes, but I don't do very much joke telling. What I learned when I got older is it has to be your voice, your style, to really work. If I go in there and start telling jokes I'll just be one of the thousands of unknown, average standup comics. So I was determined to do the things that I loved doing, which were these other pieces.
This year it felt like the product was ready to go, and now it was time to give up something to get something. So I quit the teaching job and was self-employed and had the time to get the show.
Did you do a lot of corporate gigs to sustain yourself?
Yeah I did some corporate stuff, but that's a weird world. I didn't want to censor myself; we were going to do it my way. I still do some here and there, but they get really scared about offending someone, so I haven't pursued that route.
But when you do something like America's Got Talent, I imagine you are restricted as far as where you can take the performance.
That's a whole different thing. At that time I was headed down a couple different roads. One thought was that I could get an agent to book things for me, and then through word of mouth I could get some momentum built for the show at colleges and whatnot. But then I also decided to submit an audition tape to America's Got Talent. It was a longer version of the piece they showed on TV. I thought that was just a shot in the dark, because they get thousands and thousands of tapes. And they were like, "Okay, thank you," and I never heard anything from them.
So I was looking on Twitter and saw they'd already begun the real auditions with the actual judges, and I thought I was done. And then about three days later I got a call from them and they asked if I could go to the New York and audition, so I had a week to throw together the ninety-second video I needed for the performance.
But it all worked out. The performance looked great, they loved you, and now you're on to Las Vegas. What does the next step for this look like?
The Vegas round will air July 16 and 17. I'm not allowed to say what happened in Vegas until anything airs, but hopefully you make it through Vegas, and then you go back to New York for the live rounds, and that's when America votes.
My live show is very different than what they usually have on the show. Like I said, I do all of those useless talents, and it is very self-deprecating. I do a juggling piece in there, but it's not to show how good of a juggler I am, because there are a million of those guys out there. And they're all better than me. They can juggle seven clubs, but it's like, who cares? You can always see a show like that. My aim is to make you laugh.
America's Got Talent is very different. It's sent me down this very different road that I'm used to, and I'm seeing where it leads me. What they're interested in is seeing another interactive video again, so now I'm the video guy, even though my whole show isn't about that.
What was the first moment when you realized you loved performing and developed an itch?
I was probably twelve when I wanted to perform. I didn't have the resources for it; I don't come from a family that performs. But I used to watch these vaudville performers -- jugglers and musicians, street performer type things. So I taught myself how to juggle. I used to ride my bike out to the mall to this magic shop called Zeezos Magic Castle, and the guy who owned the shop would teach me how to do magic tricks. But it wasn't until I got into high school theater that there became an opportunity for me to perform.
So when I got into high school they were holding auditions at the old Elitch Gardens. They were looking for jugglers and musicians and things like that. I was about fifteen, and I got hired to be a juggler there, and I developed a show with a few other guys and we started street performing in the park. We would also take the show to the Sixteenth Street Mall and Pearl Street in Boulder. It was all self taught, on the streets, the worst kind of performing you could ever imagine.
Dave Shirley will make his second appearance on America's Got Talent on July 16 and 17 on NBC.
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For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.